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Controversy in the Land of Disruptive Innovation

Who could be against innovation? Enterprises embrace it as an indispensable ingredient of adaptation and growth, a key to overcoming uncertainty and competition and to ensuring survivability. Advocates often take their cues from The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.

In the June 23, 2014, issue of the New Yorker, Jill Lepore, an American history professor at Harvard, lambasted the 1997 book and set off a summer of discontent in innovation-land. Her article, “The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong,” picked apart the widely accepted theory of disruptive innovation — that successful, established companies can be blindsided by seemingly inferior products from inventive entrepreneurs — and the implication, as she presented it, that if an incumbent “doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt.”

Lepore contended that Christensen made “circular arguments,” disregarded case examples that didn’t fit his theory and failed to prove that it is predictive. “Disruptive innovation is a theory of why businesses fail. It is not more than that,” she concluded.

Christensen did not lack for defenders. His work is a rare example of rigorous research that “finds its way into mainstream business, guiding managers to make day-to-day decisions,” said Howard Yu, professor of strategic management at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, retired vice president of strategy and innovation at IBM, agreed with Lepore that “the concept of disruption has been overused and misused in business” but was “taken aback” by her attack on “a useful organizing framework for discussing the creative-destruction aspects of innovation.”

Christensen criticized Lepore for “breaking rules of scholarship” by ignoring sequels to The Innovator’s Dilemma and subsequent research that addressed her complaints — and for being mean. The contretemps offered more drama and played out more publicly than the typical academic debate. But it wasn’t much more than that. The corporate innovation beat goes on, and Christensen’s is hardly the only textbook.

Innovation is so entrenched in business strategies because there is more to it than the cycles of disruptive entrepreneurism that Christensen documented in the 1990s. The popular conception of freewheeling visionaries launching start-ups in garages distorts the reality of how disciplined, systematic and scientific the practice and pursuit of innovation have become.

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To me, debating objectivity and biases in case studies is frivolous. The value of "The Innovator's Dilemma" is in the conceptual framework and lexicon introduced that is both simple and compelling. This is the type of practical academic research that is actually useful, particularly to executives making decisions and setting strategies everyday. This is where true progress happens.

Aug 29 2014 at 10:57 AM EST

Tyler Kim